Is Brian Kelly having an identity crisis?

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“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Noted philosopher Charlie Weis snatched that quote from the great Bill Parcels, introducing it to Notre Dame fans early in his tenure as head coach. It’s a lesson taught often in football, one that can determine the difference between a good football team and a great one. It’s also a lesson that applies to Brian Kelly’s 2014 squad.

After watching Notre Dame’s football program backslide throughout a truly Weisian November, the Irish sit at 7-5 at the end of the regular season, a disappointing finish to a season that started with great expectations and a 6-0 start.

Now the philosophy/identity conundrum needs applying to Kelly and his football program, a group that suffered a late-season identity crisis that not many saw coming.

After dominating November as a head coach, Kelly watched his Irish close the season with four-straight losses, including last weekend’s 35-point pasting by rival USC. A decimated defense, a schizophrenic offense and putrid special teams all disappointed this team down the stretch, a full-scale meltdown that demands total inspection.

Explaining away a lost season by solely blaming things on injuries only scratches the surface of the Irish’s problems. As Notre Dame enters a critical period in the program — the bowl preparation period that should jump-start the 2015 team before spring practice — let’s take a look at the key issues that face Kelly and the Irish as his fifth season atop the program comes to a close.

 

What Should Notre Dame’s Defense Look Like?

The defense the Irish ran out against USC wasn’t the group Kelly and Brian VanGorder wanted to play. It was all they had left.

Saturday’s group included underclassmen at nearly every spot in the lineup, supplemented only by veteran journeymen that for better or worse should be buried on a talented depth chart.

While starters like Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Max Redfield took the field to start the game, the true sophomores — nearly all playing in their first season of significant action — were never supposed to be the foundation of a unit. But injuries changed the admittedly already thin personnel, leaving the Irish severely undermanned.

At its best, the Irish defense played very good football. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in the program’s history and holding Stanford to 14 points are examples of that. Down teams or not, that’s solid football. But as the book was being written (and game tape being produced) about Notre Dame’s attacking, multiple defense, the Irish coaching staff just wasn’t able to counter as team’s shifted their game plan.

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora was the first to expose the Irish’s deficiencies against an up-tempo attack. Scoring 43 points and racking up 516 yards of total offense, the Tar Heels did so against a defense that was still essentially full strength.

During Notre Dame’s bye week, VanGorder spoke with the local media. When asked about the 43 points the Irish gave up against Fedora’s up-tempo defense, he blamed himself.

“I just didn’t do a good job. We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded.

He also acknowledged a key factor that essentially contributed to the demise of this Irish defense.  A system that relies heavily on scheme has a natural enemy in an up-tempo attack, because it forces simplicity to govern your decisions.

“That’s what defensive coaches don’t like. It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it, shrinks it way down,” VanGorder said. “Unfortunately, it just removes some of the strategies of the game.”

Those strategies made Notre Dame an incredibly efficient team on third down early in the season, even without natural pass rushers on the field. The Irish thrived in their “sub-packages,” a buzz word that spread in the early season narrative of this team. Those sub-packages were a credit to VanGorder, a new defensive coordinator that allowed young players to get on the field early and do what they did best.

Unfortunately, those packages also masked some of the deficiencies many had expected to see from the start. Deficiencies that came from starting two new defensive ends, both converted outside linebackers. At linebacker, a converted wide receiver was starting in his first game on that side of the ball, while an injured middle linebacker forced a first-year starter and contributor into the fray.

Pair that group with a secondary playing a man-heavy scheme that lost its best player to suspension. A unit that was counting on first-year starters at safety and cornerback was stripped to its bones, the foundation of this defense always one or two bad breaks away from being in a really dangerous spot — a reality Brian Kelly acknowledged from the start.

We saw that danger expose itself in all its ugliness down the stretch. The loss of Joe Schmidt robbed the Irish of its nerve center — not to mention a very productive linebacker. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones took away the only position group operating with elite BCS-level personnel. Forced to play somebody who knew the ins and outs of the defense, Austin Collinsworth strapped on a harness and battled through knee and shoulder injuries to try and bring a pre-snap consistency into the huddle. It didn’t help.

All of this is a long way to cut to the true issue: At its core, what does this defense want to be?

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had a system and a philosophy. Sure, it gave away little victories, like underneath throws. Yes, it played vanilla and didn’t do a good job of building pressure schemes. But Diaco did that because he thought it was the best way to win the war.

Diaco’s wasn’t the most youth-friendly system, either. The UConn head coach famously kept Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on the bench as healthy scratches against Denard Robinson in 2010, unwilling to trust either freshman to play assignment-correct football. The Irish were carved up by the Michigan quarterback anyway.

With their depth pillaged, VanGorder and Kelly searched for defensive answers in November. They found none. Personnel was a steep challenge. So was football IQ, an issue that comes with playing freshman, but also happens when you players are learning a scheme devised in the NFL under mad scientists like Rex Ryan.

When things are going good, “NFL scheme” is music to the ears of fans and recruits. It’s also something that players relish — understandably proud of their installation and achievement in a system that draws from football played at its highest level.

But when things are like they’ve been this past month? It’s a four-alarm fire, with the Irish unable to stop the run, cover the pass, avoid the home run or the first-round knockout.

How did USC beat the Irish? Essentially any way they wanted to.

It wasn’t only USC’s skill talent that made the undermanned Irish look silly. It was Northwestern’s, who utilized an up-tempo attack to turn one of the least explosive offenses in the country into a group that scored 43 points against the Irish.

That gets to the point of building a defense. And likely one of the largest lessons VanGorder learned in his return to college football.

“I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem,” VanGorder said back in October. “And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult.

“They’re so young, and the defense from the last few years they were involved in to this one is so different that they will make the same mistake over and over.”

We saw those mistakes happen. Over and over.

Not just the mistakes that come with freshmen like Nyles Morgan learning on the fly, but in the secondary, where Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are battling to unlearn some lessons as they try and learn and play better football in their current system.

Nearly every piece of this defense returns next season. That’ll include KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, who should both be back on campus this summer.

But as VanGorder, Kelly and the defensive staff look back on a season filled with peaks and valleys, they’d be wise to strip away the frills and focus on their foundation first.

 

Is Brian Kelly’s Preferred Offense the Right One for Brian Kelly’s Football Team?

As season five comes to a close, Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system demands inspection. Brought to South Bend as one of the premiere offensive innovators in college football, the transition to Kelly’s aggressive, pass-heavy, spread attack hasn’t always been easy.

Most difficult has been finding the right fit at quarterback. Neither Dayne Crist nor Tommy Rees were natural fits. Then again, neither were Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa or Gunner Kiel, either.

But Everett Golson’s struggles down the stretch should force Kelly to re-examine what it is he wants to accomplish with his offense. Not just through the prism of personnel or playcalling, but as a head coach, and ultimately as a vehicle to victory.

Golson’s turnover struggles can’t just be pinned on the quarterback. They should also fall on the coach calling the plays.

Right now, Notre Dame’s two most explosive offenses under Brian Kelly took place in 2011 and 2014. And both of those teams were held back by quarterbacks who turned the football over too many times.

For the longest time, the dog to kick was then second-year quarterback Tommy Rees. Whether it was lack of arm strength or athleticism, Rees’ shortcomings are well chronicled.

But Golson has none of those deficiencies. He has the arm to make any throw. The legs to escape trouble and run the zone read. But the 22 turnovers committed over the past nine games makes winning impossible, especially without a defense to bail you out.

Critiquing playcalling is the worst form of fan or media criticism. Analyzing red zone playcalling or offensive game planning — the second item a clear strength for Kelly as a head coach in every season up until now — is an exercise that’s difficult to do without the entire picture.

But if there’s something telling about multiple jet sweeps at the goal line or an over-reliance on the passing game, it’s that Kelly never developed trust in his offensive line when it was time to score touchdowns.

(That’s been obvious just about every time the Irish ran a QB draw inside the 10-yard line.)

Is the problem Everett Golson or Brian Kelly? Maybe it’s a system putting too much onto the shoulders of a quarterback?

Second-year quarterbacks make mistakes. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions as a sophomore. Brady Quinn completed just 54 percent of his throws. Outside the ND sphere, second-year player Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions this season, a year after winning the Heisman with a sparkling 40:10 TD:INT ratio. A little bit of knowlege can be a dangerous thing.

With Golson the redshirt freshman, Kelly and then offensive coordinator Chuck Martin manufactured an undefeated regular season, leaning on the back of a stalwart defense and play-calling a run heavy, risk averse game. They were unwilling to let an offense beat itself after just living through it. That shows a head coach far more flexible and willing than his critics attest.

That discipline will need to be utilized in 2015. Whether it’s a reformed Golson or the upstart Malik Zaire, the formula for offensive success needs to be examined. The Irish receiving corps returns completely. The offensive line brings back four of five starters, with Christian Lombard swapped out for Mike McGlinchey in the second half, a kickstart to the future at right tackle.

With Tarean Folston set to emerge as a star and Greg Bryant a wonderful 1A, the running game can drive this offense if the head coach will let it. That also means the quarterback being a legitimate option, whether it be Golson (still the odds on favorite) or Zaire, a much better natural ball carrier.

But Kelly may need to once again recalibrate his approach to winning football games.

 

Does Notre Dame’s Coaching Staff Need a Change?

Brian Kelly has shown loyalty to his assistants. He’s also shown the ability to make changes, with the outside additions of Harry Hiestand and Bobby Elliott and the daring move of handing Chuck Martin the keys to the offense, spurring the success of 2012. (Scott Booker was also promoted from the GA ranks to take over as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator before the 2012 season.)

Kelly’s two big hires for 2014 — VanGorder and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur — haven’t shown the immediate impact that the last coaching shuffle did. VanGorder’s late-season struggles are well-chronicled above.

Golson’s struggles also reflect poorly on LaFluer. The first-year assistant, who worked under Kelly early in his career before coaching under Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, was brought on to help improve the quarterback play as the Irish transitioned back to Kelly’s preferred spread attack. That’s obviously been a work-in-progress at best, as Golson’s been plagued by turnovers that have ruined otherwise impressive numbers.

(Some have speculated that LaFleur’s main job was working with Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer, while Kelly and Golson worked in lockstep.)

What kind of move would Kelly want to make before next season? First, it feels safe to eliminate big name hires like the recently fired Will Muschamp or Bo Pelini. That’s never been Kelly’s M.O. (And if Irish fans forgot how things went the last time Notre Dame let public opinion and Q-Rating determine the defensive coordinator, shame on them.)

But a shakeup might be in order for Kelly. So let’s look around and see where it might come.

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock ran an offense filled with young skill players and the group improved by a touchdown per game in points scored. He’s also been one of Kelly’s most trusted advisors. But another trusted assistant, former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, is currently unemployed.

Quinn is an offensive line coach by trade, a position currently held by Hiestand. He’s also not likely to take a position coach job after running his own program and coordinating Kelly’s offense for four seasons in Cincinnati. So Quinn might be a move that Kelly would mull, though that could make for some difficult decisions in the staff room.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to think Kelly’s going to stop supporting VanGorder after 12 injury-and-youth-plagued games. But are any jobs below VanGorder up for grabs?

Defensive assistants Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks and Elliott all essentially learned a new defense along with the players, taking cues and radically rebuilding a defense that spent four years under the singular voice of Bob Diaco. Understanding the dynamic between VanGorder and the three other defensive staff would require CIA-level monitoring devices, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with those dynamics.

Special teams continues to be the one maddening constant that’s shown struggles since Kelly arrived. First handled by Mike Elston, Booker is the face of the unit, though he shares responsibilities with other coaches. A young coach who deserves credit for the tight end position and some key recruiting wins, the Irish fixed their return and coverage issues this season, but then saw Kyle Brindza and the kicking battery fall apart. A year after workshopping and looking for help outside the program, the steps forward the Irish made have been covered up by the wayward kicks and missed holds on the field goal unit.

Kelly has demanded loyalty from his assistants, and also shown it in return: Chuck Martin took a pay cut to leave and coach Miami (Ohio) and several other assistants are paid very well.

But in a year where the Irish didn’t make the type of progress anybody expected, a change could conceivably be on the horizon.

 

Displeasure is Only One Bad Loss Away

The idea of building good will at a program like Notre Dame is a bit pollyanna. Even when you win, there will be people who don’t like how it’s being done. And a loss? What tho’ the odds, that just won’t do. Even if you’re playing the JV defense.

But as the coaching carousel starts to crank up one more time, the hires that we end up seeing at big-time programs — Michigan, Nebraska and Florida — primarily consist of the usual suspects.

Barring Michigan tempting Jim Harbaugh with ownership rights, Florida looks close to hiring Colorado State’s coach. Nebraska might replace a former defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator with ties to the school. Once again, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops appear to be going nowhere.

Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s his first stop that’s lasted into season six since his run at Grand Valley. And while he’s built programs at Central Michigan and taken Cincinnati to new heights, year five had Kelly paying the price for earlier sins, as injuries, attrition and the NFL Draft robbed him of a senior class.

While this year isn’t a mulligan, it won’t be viewed at the national level the same way that it is by hard-core Irish faithful. But expect the intensity to ratchet up. Because after a 12-win 2012, Notre Dame has gone 16-9 the next two seasons. That’s the type of win rate that warms up hot seats, not build statues.

So as Kelly takes stock of his team’s performance this season, it’s worth a reminder that applies to players and coaches in kind:

“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?

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The stat continues to be referenced in this space because it is somewhat hard to believe: Irish receivers accounted for three catches and 11 yards in Notre Dame’s 49-20 victory over Boston College last weekend. As a whole, the passing game accounted for 96 of the 611 total Irish yards.

“Clearly we have to work on our weaknesses, right?” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “So wherever we feel like our weaknesses are within the offense, we have to get better at those weaknesses each and every week.”

The weakness would seem to be the aerial attack as a whole with an emphasis on threats created by the supposed downfield playmakers. The latter half of this particular topic will be discussed into the ground. There are a few reasons for that.

1: The Irish rushing attack has been so dynamic there is little, if anything, to reasonably assail in that aspect of the game.
2: The Notre Dame defense has exceeded any realistic preseason expectations such that, though not perfect, it is a welcome surprise for Irish fans and, presumably, Irish coaches alike.
3: Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues do not leave much for the imagination or any debate. They are what they are and will remain just that until improved.

“The question that probably hit it the most was recognition, being comfortable with the route, where the receiver is, and just trusting it,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s misfires. “Once [Wimbush] gets to that level and trusts it — he trusts that corner route, that six route, he loves to throw that route, you can see that he loved throwing it — once he gets to that level with his passing game, he’ll throw it with the same kind of accuracy.”

It seems distinctly possible doubting Notre Dame’s receivers may remain the critic’s tactic all season long. Whether that is the case or not, let’s hit pause and offer a quick plot synopsis. With 11 scholarship receivers on the roster, this may take a few minutes. In no particular order other than the easiest transitions in writing:

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown
St. Brown has been the one consistent Irish receiver, even if that does not necessarily show up on the stat sheet. It certainly did not against the Eagles, when he recorded one, three-yard reception. Whenever Kelly refers to only one receiver doing anything of positive connotation, he is referencing St. Brown. For example:

“Accuracy is a product of being comfortable within an offense, an offense that has changed a little bit from what [Wimbush] was used to running,” Kelly said. “It also has to do with really only having one receiver that has established himself in the program for a period of time. He’s working with some new receivers.”

Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long may continue to experiment with different options and new combinations. St. Brown will remain a constant.

To some degree, his breakout sophomore campaign doomed how his junior year would be viewed. That does not excuse seven catches for 99 yards and one score through three games, but it does help explain some of the lens through which that stat line is viewed. As was written in St. Brown’s 99-to-2 entry before the season:

“Suffice it to say, St. Brown exceeded any and all expectations in 2016, beginning with his tumbling touchdown against Texas. In a way, those successes make it likely St. Brown falls short of expectations in 2017. If he does appear to take a step back, whether that is shown in statistics or not, it could be partly due to the added depth.”

Fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith
In retrospect, the offseason arrival of the graduate transfer could have been seen as an indication Long was not yet satisfied with the receivers already on hand. Instead, the newcomer was presumed to be a luxury from Long’s past. The two spent three years together at Arizona State before Long moved to Memphis for the 2016 season.

“Smith already knows Long’s offensive tendencies,” this space wrote in the summer. “Slipping into a familiar offensive approach should not take much time at all. Long may be most grateful for Smith’s on-field presence as the Irish learn to embrace an up-tempo offense. Smith is already used to it.”

Some of Smith’s success may indeed derive from his institutional knowledge rather than from a lack of performers otherwise. He missed the Boston College contest due to a sprained ankle, racking up seven catches for 54 yards in the two games preceding it. Kelly expects him to return this weekend.

“The one thing about Cam is he’s extremely physical, a great blocker,” Kelly said. “He can catch the football.

“We’ve got to catch it better at all positions, though, not just one position. But he’s definitely a guy that adds to our receiving depth.”

Sophomore Chase Claypool
If St. Brown and Smith are the closest the Irish come to sure things, Claypool may have used the victory over the Eagles to position himself as the next best bet. He made two of those three catches and gained eight of those 11 yards. Those numbers are not much, but it cannot be denied they led the Irish receivers.

Throughout the spring and most of the preseason, Claypool was seen as a possible starter at the slot position, even though his 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame is far from typical for the inside spot.

“Sending Claypool’s frame on quick routes across the middle should provide junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush an especially-dynamic safety valve of sorts,” the respective 99-to-2 entry posited.

Against Boston College, though, Claypool saw more action on the boundary, opposite St. Brown. The next day Kelly indicated that is likely to continue, though the depth chart Notre Dame released Tuesday does not hold to that. In this instance, deferring to the actual statement makes more sense than abiding by a superfluous depth chart.

Here, Claypool’s two targets through the first two games of the season show his inconsistencies. On one play, a clean route to an open spot on the field yields a 16-yard gain. On the other, he drops a screen pass, always an added danger due to the greater-than-usual possibility the incompletion becomes a fumble.

Junior Miles Boykin
With Claypool emerging at the boundary position, it seems Boykin may be on the way out. That theory is underscored when realizing Wimbush has yet to target Boykin. Sophomore Ian Book did twice in the closing minutes Saturday, both falling incomplete.

Continuing to use 99-to-2 entries to give an idea where one fool thought each player stood during the summer, a look at Boykin’s reminds his drop back down the depth chart was always a consideration.

“Boykins’ rise to the top of the depth chart this spring was always a possibility, if not necessarily a likely one following the 2016 season. … Boykin’s pedigree kept this result in play despite his minimal role. The question now is, will he maintain this consistency and thus create more opportunities for himself?”

It appears that answer may be no.

Junior Chris Finke
Finke was the odd-man out when the theoretical springtime starting trio was St. Brown-Claypool-Boykin. It took him seven quarters to get a target this season, but he quickly made the most of it and the soon-to-follow opportunities. In just the fourth quarter against Georgia, Finke caught three of four targets for 36 yards.

His ability to create a window within traffic is one not displayed by any of the other Irish receivers yet this year. Where that went against the Eagles may be one of the more perplexing wonderings so far this September. Then again, the running game’s success rendered the point quite moot.

Junior C.J. Sanders
The other most-likely option at the slot, Sanders is actually listed as a boundary possibility on the aforementioned depth chart, behind Smith, on the same level as freshman Michael Young. If remembering Kelly’s comments about Claypool, it seems more accurate to depict Sanders as the third in line there, at best.

Given he has yet to be targeted this season — and, frankly, memory fails to recall him taking an offensive snap, but add to that a few grains of salt — that at best is awfully necessary.

Sanders has continued to return kicks, coming oh-so-close to breaking a couple for big moments. His greatest skill remains finding a lane and accelerating. There is a reason Finke returns punts — he is shiftier than Sanders, more dangerous in close quarters. Simply enough, that skill translates better to offensive snaps.

That discrepancy began to show itself in 2016’s second half. Sanders totaled 24 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns. On the surface, that is a modest stat line for a sophomore, certainly one opening the door for conversations about potential. Looking deeper, though, Sanders made only seven catches for 39 yards in the season’s final seven games.

“One of Notre Dame’s pass-catchers is going to be left on the outside looking in at opportunities within a high-scoring offense,” Sanders’ 99-to-2 entry read. “Sanders seems a likely candidate. … As much as Long’s tendencies may suggest Sanders’ role in the passing game may be minimal, the last half of his 2016 did not do the junior any favors, either.”

Freshman Michael Young
Young’s ascension to a prominent role remains theoretical, but the time may be coming quickly.

“He presents himself in a manner that he could be a guy that does a little bit more than just a guy that is downfield,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We think he can be a screen guy, maybe a jet sweep guy. He’s got a little bit of all those tools.

“It’s too early really to tell other than the fact that we really like his work ethic, his attitude, his football intelligence is really high. It’s put him in a good position early in his career. I see him more as a multi-dimensional player than maybe a perimeter player.”

Kelly did not make those comments with Sanders in mind, but they may speak as much to why the junior has yet to contribute on offense this year while the freshman is readying to do so. Young may have the ability to shed a tackle on a screen, while Sanders would need the alley to be waiting for him.

Young’s only catch this season, in fact, came on exactly such a play.

Freshman Jafar Armstrong
Young’s classmate has yet to see the field this year. It may be too soon to chalk that up to a guaranteed year of preserving eligibility, but it would be unexpected to see him play at this point.

Sophomore Kevin Stepherson
Much time has been spent fretting about Stepherson’s future. The most definitive statement to date has been the absence of his name on Notre Dame’s travel roster on the trip to Boston College. It would logically seem unlikely that changes on this weekend’s jaunt.

Senior Freddy Canteen
Canteen will miss the rest of the season due to a torn labrum.

Sophomore Javon McKinley
Kelly said Sunday he hopes to preserve a year of McKinley’s eligibility this season.


Of the 11 rostered receivers, seven have a viable chance at making an impact for the Irish this season. They would benefit from Wimbush improving upon his accuracy, but that quickly becomes a chicken and egg debate.

The odds are this hole in the Irish offense will last past this weekend. Notre Dame will focus on winning more than on developing its passing game.

“We’re going to do what we’re good at,” Kelly said. “That’s what you’ll see from this offense moving forward.”

Then again, it is also distinctly possible this speculation dies on the vine Saturday night. That is not meant as an optimistic conclusion’s tease. It is meant as an acknowledgement of the realities of college football, of 18- to 22-year-olds and of three-week sample sizes.


A nod where a nod is due, this piece was knocking around the mind, only to be kicked into existence by a request from ndpourtjrs: Douglas, if your agenda permits would you mind running a recap on our receiver crops with some profile info? This situation may prove to be a pivotal point for the season. Thank you!

It was the yet-to-be-earned gratitude that sealed the deal. You’re welcome, ndpourtjrs.

MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams

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It is not quite an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, but when Notre Dame travels to Michigan State this weekend, the focus will be on what success the Irish can have running the football against a staunch Spartans defense.

Michigan State has hosted Bowling Green and Western Michigan thus far this season, holding the two to a combined 220 rushing yards on 55 attempts (when adjusting for the Spartans’ five sacks for a loss of 37 yards), an average of 4.0 yards per carry.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, has gained 1,023 yards on 127 carries, an average of 8.06 yards per rush.

Something will have to give.

“They do what they do. They’re stingy against the run,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “They’re very physical in the back end. They play tight man coverage. They mix it up very good with their pressure package.

“Led by coach [Mark] Dantonio’s philosophy, they’ve always been really good defensively.”

That “tight man coverage” thought may seem an outlier when discussing Michigan State’s penchant for stopping the run, but it is that man-to-man coverage allowing Dantonio to devote an increased number of bodies to stopping the run. It could also be the item allowing Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to break loose at times.

When those defensive backs, and perhaps even linebackers covering tight ends or running backs, turn to cover a route, they lose site of the quarterback. With a mobile passer such as Wimbush, the backs of those helmets can turn a run-pass option play into a quick run for a worthwhile gain.

“If teams are feeling as though playing man-to-man and turning their back on the quarterback is the way they want to defend us, he’s going to run a lot,” Kelly said. “I know I wouldn’t want to be in man-to-man versus option offenses. It’s the last thing that you want to do, turn your back on an option quarterback and give him all the field to run.

“Teams are starting to figure out how to defend us, too. … If we see more zone coverages, he’s going to have to be able to throw the football. We’ve got to continue to grow as an offense in both those phases.”

The aerial phase of the offense will be determined by any improved accuracy from Wimbush and the emergence of more reliable receivers, an unavoidable topic following a game where that combination managed a meager 96 passing yards.

While Kelly did not excuse the extent of that struggle, he did indicate a slow start to the season might have been expected of Wimbush. This is, after all, his first collegiate action.

“We’re three games into this, he’s only going to feel more comfortable each and every week,” Kelly said. “These conversations that we’re having right now are totally natural for a first-year starter. He’s had a clipboard and a headset, that’s it. Now he’s in the middle of it.

“You’ll continue to see progress from him from week to week.”

That progress notwithstanding, look for the Irish to rely on the run as much as possible this weekend. Along with that will come zone reads, counters, and the rest of the ground game gamut.

“We can’t appease people in terms of what looks good as much as we’re were going to be good at,” Kelly said. “If running the football is what is going to be the common denominator for wins, then that’s what we’re doing. Efficiency is the most important thing.”

To keep him fresh over a long season, Notre Dame has taken to resting junior running back Josh Adams a bit during the week. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Resting Josh Adams six days a week
Wimbush may have scored four rushing touchdowns last week, but junior running back Josh Adams absorbs more of the physical toll of the ground game than any other Notre Dame ballcarrier. To date, Adams has taken 56 attempts for 443 yards.

To keep the bell cow fresh, the Irish coaching staff has reduced some of his workload during the week.

“We’re very cognizant of how we practice him, making sure that he gets the proper work, that he’s sharp when we get to Saturday,” Kelly said. “We let our best players play.

“It’s really incumbent upon us to do a great job of preparing him, but understanding that he’s got to feel really good when we get to Saturdays.”

The return of Cam Smith
Fifth year receiver Cam Smith missed the Boston College game due to a sprained ankle suffered in practice last week. Kelly said he expects Smith to be 100 percent this week.

A recruiting conversation about the NBA
In recent conversations, Kelly has praised the football intelligence of a few players, most notably junior cornerback Shawn Crawford and freshman receiver Michael Young. That may seem a difficult quality to gauge when recruiting 17-year-olds. So, Kelly doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on their broader understanding of and interest in sports.

“I actually like to talk about other sports,” Kelly said. “If they don’t know anything about Kyrie Irving and the trade with the Celtics, I get a little nervous.”

Typically, whenever Kelly mentions a Boston professional sports team, it is meant in jest as a reminder of his fandom allegiances. In this instance, it was an accurate acknowledgement of the biggest non-football sports story of the summer. At least, the biggest in this country.

“Those that understand sports, whether it be basketball, football, whatever they follow, other sports other than football itself, they generally have an understanding of the games,” Kelly said. “There are so many carryovers with other sports.

“I get a little nervous when somebody doesn’t know anything about any other sport.”

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets

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Last week, Notre Dame’s opponents enjoyed a 6-2 record, not counting Boston College’s loss to the Irish. This coming week, however, will prove a much more difficult slate. Exactly half of the dozen are favored with none facing each other.

Temple (2-1): The Owls needed a 13-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Logan Marchi to sophomore receiver Isaiah Wright with only 3:48 remaining to make it a two-score game against Massachusetts this weekend. The Minutemen got another score, but thanks to Marchi’s consistency, the last-minutes touchdown was not enough to catch Temple. The Owls prevailed 29-21, and Marchi continued his interception-less streak to start the season.

That streak will be tested Thursday at South Florida (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bulls are favored by a mere 20.5 points with a combined points total over/under of 61. A 41-20 trouncing would not bode well for Temple in the American Athletic Conference this fall.

On a somewhat unrelated note, it was recently posited to your definitely-not-too-focused-on-gambling-lines scribe that favorites of 20 points or more win outright more than 98 percent of the time. Logically, that makes sense, but a spreadsheet now exists to quietly track that for the remainder of the season to gauge just how secure those endeavors may be.

Georgia (3-0): Georgia beat up on FCS-level Samford 42-14. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm went 8-for-13 passing for 165 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Nonetheless, sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason reportedly returned to practice Monday, though in a limited role.

The Bulldogs used a 21-0 third quarter to end any Samford dreams.

Whoever starts at quarterback this week will have a tough task. Georgia hosts Mississippi State (7 p.m. ET on ESPN). The Bulldogs are favored by 6.5 as of this Tuesday a.m. writing with an over/under of 48.5. Quick math and some rounding hint at a 27-21 final.

Pretty soon here, Boston College head coach Steve Addazio is going to be extremely desperate for a win. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Boston College (1-2): The Eagles lost to Notre Dame 49-20. You knew that, right?

The sledding will get much rougher for Boston College now, heading to defending national champion Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2). A 34-point margin is predicted with an over/under of merely 51.5. Suffice it to say, losing 43-8 would not do any good for Eagles head coach Steve Addazio’s future no matter who the opponent may be.

Michigan State (2-0): The Spartans enjoyed a bye week and now host, who is it again, hmmm, oh! Right! Michigan State faces Notre Dame at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. The spread is up to five, favoring the Irish, with an over/under of 54, indicating something along the lines of 30-24.

Miami (OH) (1-2): Chuck Martin has officially lost momentum. A 21-17 loss to Cincinnati at home will do that. The defeat was even more spirit-crushing than usual. The RedHawks led 14-3 entering the fourth quarter. They led 17-6 with fewer than three minutes remaining. A touchdown followed by a two-point conversion cut the lead to 17-14 and then an interception returned for a touchdown 70 seconds later gifted the Bearcats a victory.

Miami did not exactly play stellar football, though. The RedHawks converted only three of 14 third downs and gained a whopping 70 rushing yards on 32 attempts, a 2.2 yards per carry average.

Martin and Miami will look to right the ship this weekend on a trip to Central Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). Despite the road venue, the RedHawks are only two-point underdogs with an over/under of 53.5. Another close loss, perhaps 28-25, would be all-too deflating for Martin’s reclamation efforts.

North Carolina (1-2): Congratulations Tar Heels, you found a win. Sure, it was a 53-23 delight at FCS-level Old Dominion, but a win is a win is a [four-beat pause] win. After giving up 72 points combined in your first two games, you gave up only 23 to the Monarchs, with seven of those coming from a kickoff return for a touchdown.

North Carolina next hosts Duke (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU). Those not too familiar with some of the norms of gambling spreads should remember home-field advantage is usually good for a three-point swing in the projected margin. With that in mind, raise an eyebrow at the Tar Heels being three-point underdogs to the Blue Devils with an over/under of 63.5, indicating a 34-30 type of afternoon.

That spread seems about right. That point total seems a bit low, especially when considering North Carolina’s defensive performances thus far this season.

A walk-on freshman, Chase McGrath provided the winning points, and the tying ones at the end of regulation, to propel USC past Texas in double overtime Saturday, though by then it was Sunday in most of the country. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

USC (3-0): The Trojans found their way to a 27-24 double overtime win against Texas. It was dramatic and entertaining and, if being honest, somewhat underwhelming.

If anything was learned, USC now knows it has a calm and confident kicker in freshman walk-on Chase McGrath.

He should not have too much to worry about this weekend. The Trojans head up to Cal (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC) to face the overmatched Bears. A 16.5-point spread and an over/under of 63 points results in a guess of 40-24, advantage USC.

North Carolina State (2-1): The Wolfpack enjoyed a 49-16 victory over FCS-level Furman, otherwise known as the Paladins, a truly exemplar team nickname, and fitting they had to travel to Raleigh.

North Carolina State now has to do the traveling, all the way down to Tallahassee to try and prove wrong an 11-point spread in favor of Florida State. The 51 point over/under implies a 31-20 finale. It may be a bit bold to predict the Wolfpack to win outright, but a cover and an under would go hand-in-hand.

Wake Forest (3-0): Three years ago, the Demon Deacons lost to Utah State 36-24. This past weekend, Wake Forest beat the Aggies 46-10.

By no means is that a sign of Utah State’s fall. It is, rather, a distinct note of the Deacons’ improvement.

That will be tested at Appalachian State this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET on Watch ESPN). This line opened at Wake Forest by three, but it has already moved up to 4.5, indicating the world is onto the Deacons rising. An over/under of 46 leads to considerations of a 25-21 finale. That would certainly be entertaining, but figure Wake Forest’s roll will continue with a bit more ease than that.

Miami (FL) (1-0): Hurricane Irma postponed Miami’s date at Florida State until Oct. 7. Having played all of one game this year, the Hurricanes will be eager to host Toledo (3:30 p.m. ET on ACC Network). They may be too eager to cover a 13.5-spread in their favor with an over/under of 57.5. That 35-22 final simply seems too wide.

Navy (2-0): The Midshipmen relished a bye week. Navy will now host Cincinnati. As 11.5-point favorites, the Midshipmen’s performance will provide a barometer of Miami (OH) as much as anything else. A 31-20 victory would indicate the RedHawks may be in for a long year while the Midshipmen get ready to challenge for the American Athletic title once again.

Stanford (1-2): The Cardinal fell for the second week in a row, this time at San Diego State by the score of 20-17 after the lights literally went out. This should not be seen as the end of times for head coach David Shaw’s Stanford. IT may be a tough loss, but they have set up too strong a program to let two-consecutive losses halt progress forward.

UCLA visits the Cardinal late Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). There is no way that 63-point total is not threatened, though Stanford remains favored by 7.5 points.

Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium

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As always, these are questions with answers likely to come before Saturday night’s kickoff …

Will Cam Smith be healthy enough to get back on the field?
The fifth-year receiver suffered a sprained ankle in practice last week, limiting his reps throughout the week and keeping him from playing Saturday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. That absence may have held more of an effect than was anticipated by anyone.

Certainly, Notre Dame’s receivers totaling three catches for 11 yards is not solely a reflection of Smith not being on the field. It is a sign of bigger issues, but that does not mean Smith would not have aided the cause. With his institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from their days together at Arizona State, Smith has been consistent. His seven catches for 54 yards come from running clean, disciplined routes.

Getting him back onto the field could alleviate a slight bit of junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy issues. By no means would this eradicate the concern entirely, but even a small step in the right direction would be a welcome trend for the Irish at this point.

If Smith remains sidelined, did Chase Claypool do enough to maintain his spot as a starter?
Kelly answered this question Sunday, but it had already been worked into this concept’s draft and emphasizing it seems a valid decision.

Claypool will continue to see time, though more so at the boundary receiver position than the slot spot he worked at throughout spring and preseason practices. Of those three catches for 11 yards the receivers managed against Boston College, Claypool accounted for two receptions and eight yards.

“He was assignment correct,” Kelly said. “We saw him really grow in the areas that we wanted him to grow in.”

Along with Claypool, there was also some Michael Young innuendo last week. Will the depth chart now reflect that?
When Kelly discussed coming changes at receiver before the trip out east, he mentioned Claypool by name. He also seemed to imply another unexpected option could emerge.

“Guys are going to get banged up and we’re going to call on what I think will be outstanding depth at our wide receiver position,” Kelly said Thursday. “But we really do have to start to feature some guys that might not have all the experience but have a higher ceiling.”

At that point, Kelly knew Smith was injured, though perhaps he was still questionable to play. Kelly also presumably knew senior Freddy Canteen would need season-ending shoulder surgery this week. Those two bits could explain the first half of that paragraph.

The second half suggests Claypool would have company in the inexperienced with a “higher ceiling” category. With sophomore Javon McKinley intended to preserve a year of eligibility this season, freshman Michael Young is the most-likely candidate.

That presumption could be quickly confirmed in the Notre Dame depth chart this week.

How badly is Tony Jones’ ankle sprained?
Exactly a week ago, this piece wondered, “Through two games, are the Irish really still this healthy?” Through three games, the answer has become no.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones sprained his ankle against Boston College, only x-rays confirmed no further damage. As a running back, that injury can obviously be more than a nuisance and waiting for Jones to return to full health before playing him makes sense. If that takes longer than a week, it should lead to a bit more playing time for junior Dexter Williams. (more…)